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Space exploration is over three decades old now. It started with Russia’s ‘Sputnik’ and America’s ‘Explorer’. Man reached the moon in 1969 and walked on the lunar soil. Then came the space stations ‘Skylab’, ‘Salyut’, and ‘Mir’. Man learned to walk in space without tethers and to retrieve and repair lost satellites.

In 1989 the American spacecraft Voyager’s 12-year odyssey to Neptune brought out startling discoveries about planets and their moons. Space travel has opened up a new dimension in man’s study of the universe. Astronomers can now photograph close-up the moon and planets, which earlier they could only see dimly through the dense blanket of Earth’s atmosphere. Even though observatories have been established on mountains 2000m (6600ft) or more in height, astronomers on Earth are still hampered by the blurring and filtering effect of the atmosphere that remains above the mountains. Only by going into space can they achieve the clearest view of the sky, and also detect radiation, such as X-rays and ultra-violet light, those are blocked by the highest levels of the atmosphere.

The space age began on October 4, 1957 when Russia launched Sputnik 1 into orbit, and this was followed a month later by Sputnik 2, which carried the dog Laika. Measurement of the animal’s heartbeats, temperature and other reactions, radioed to Earth, suggested that human beings might also survive prolonged periods in space.

The first US satellite Explorer 1 did not follow until January 31, 1958 but its instruments made the first major discovery of the space age- the Van Allen radiation belts around the Earth, where electrons and protons from the Sun are trapped by the Earth’s magnetic field. Soon after, probes were sent to explore the moon and planets, and on the way they detected the Solar Wind of sub-atomic particles streaming from the sun.

Mankind’s first look at the moon’s far side came with the pictures from the Russian Luna 3 in October 1959. The US Mariner 2 in 1962 flew past Venus, confirming both its high temperature and the reverse direction of its rotation suspected by astronomers. In 1965, Mariner 4 sent back remarkable photographs revealing craters on Mars. The work of the early space probes has been extended and improved by later planetary explorers, culminating in remote-controlled landings on the Moon, Venus and Mars-the last in a search for the possibility of life. The odysseys of Voyager 1 and 2 have shed new light on our views of the cosmos.

Manned mission accounted for only 3% of the 2400 or so spacecrafts, which were launched in the first 23 years of the space age. The first man to be launched into space was the Russian Yuri Gagarin who orbited the Earth once on April 12, 1961. Later Russian cosmonauts, including the first space woman, Valentina Tereshkova, were able to stay in orbit for up to five days.

American astronauts made more modest flights in their smaller Mercury spacecraft, but in 1965 began the series of two-man Gemini flights that overtook the Russian lead in the space race. The team of astronauts in Gemini programme practiced rendezvous maneuvers, docking procedures and space walks in preparation for the Apollo mission to the Moon.

The vital part of Apollo so far as landing on the moon was concerned was the fourlegged Lunar Module, in which two men touched down the moon. The first moon landing by Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin from Apollo 11 took place on July 21, 1969.

A total of 12 Americans walked on the Moon during the Apollo programme, bringing back 380 kg of rocks and soil. These samples from the moon, along with scientific measurements made on the surface and from the orbiting mother craft, have helped scientists to piece together a detailed picture of our nearest space neighbor.

A manned trip will probably be planned in about 5 years, as the cost of the mission is colossal. Two or more nations have to come together to plan the mission and US and Russia did to achieve the Apollo-Soyuz link-up in July 1975.